Martin Hengel on a Young Discipline in Crisis: An Appraisal for the New Testament and Early Christian Discipline

UnknownThe following is a summary and personal reflection on Martin Hengel, “A Young Theological Discipline in Crisis,” in Earliest Christian History: History, Literature, and Theology, Essays from the Tyndal Fellowship in Honor of Martin Hengel, WUNT, ed. Michael F. Bird and Jason Mason, trans. Wayne Coppins (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 459–71.


The New Testament discipline, as a scientific enterprise, is still relatively young. Although young, it has shown multiple emphases in Jesus studies, Pauline studies, and earliest forms of Christianity within this nascent expression. According to Martin Hengel, Bernhard Weiß held the earliest chair of New Testament studies in Berlin during the third half of the 19th century (CE 1876).[1]

Those who studied the New Testament during the 19th century rarely—if ever—were solely New Testament scholars. Rather, they assumed roles and contributed to Old Testament scholarship, systematic and biblical theology, and most notably, church history.[2] Beyond the list Hengel provides, for example, Lightfoot was both a New Testament and Apostolic Fathers scholar. Rudolph Bultmann—who may be regarded as one of the more influential 20th century scholar—was both an exegetical thinker as well as a systematic consortium of sorts. Among 21st century scholars, John Barclay, Francis Watson, James Dunn are New Testament scholars that quickly come to mind.

Within the 20th and 21st century, we have seen the movement towards specialization of disciplines—even intradisciplinary specialization so that we have Gospel specialists and Pauline specialists and Epistle of Hebrews specialists. These are good and valuable ventures but it is not the entire portrait. We also need broader disciplines. Hengel notes this “pernicious specialization” is a post-World War II phenomenon that poses a problematic dilemma.[3]

The centrality of the New Testament and overt focus on set corpora is a noble one—because of both theological and ecclesiastical nobilities.

“It is the special meaning of this book for the study of theology and the service of the pastor that justifies the relatively young academic existence of our subject, often with two or even three chairs in a faculty.”[4]

Thus, the relatively small size of the New Testament, the ecclesiastical importance of the New Testament, and the theological role of the New Testament make overt specialization understandable.

Now if you place this relatively young discipline, and as Hengel identifies, an “unspeakably narrow discipline,” against its neighborly disciplines, an imbalance emerges.[5] There are 378 volumes in the Minge volumes that are still awaiting full analysis from Latin and Greek scholars. Also, consider the historical, archeological, and philological—let alone theological considerations—of the Old Testament and Jewish literature that New Testament scholars utilize.

Thus my actual point, with the scholarly acumen of our New Testament faculty predecessors, with the potential over-intraspecialized New Testament discipline, and with the ecclesiastical importance of the New Testament, scholars of the New Testament would do well to add the study of Early Christianity to their specialization. That is, if one is a New Testament scholar, consider linking one’s academic study of the New Testament to a neighboring discipline—Second Temple Judaism, Graeco-Roman backgrounds, Patristics and Earliest Christianity, or others. As Christoph Markschies notes, “whoever is only a member of the society of the study of the Pseudepigrapha knows nearly nothing about the Pseudepigrapha.”[6] This is quite reminiscent of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg saying, “the one who understands nothing but chemistry does not really understand it either.”[7] Hengel likewise remarks regarding such limited knowledge, “then this applies all the more to our fundamental but simultaneously from its beginning unspeakably narrow discipline.”[8]

Hence, the specialization of the New Testament might include a secondary specialty that accentuates and expands ones understanding of earliest Christianity. As Hengel moves towards a solution,

“In principle a double major in theology and classical philology would be an ideal solution for the new academic generation in New Testament and in Patristics, and we should encourage gifted students to this end.”[9]

Whether this is probable or not, we should encourage students of the New Testament to incorporate a neighborly discipline to their study of the New Testament.


Thus, what are some solutions to move forward? Here are a few that I shall give attention to:

  1. Thoroughly integrate the study of the Greek NT bible in my study.
  2. Read primary source literature that extends beyond 27 books—texts that historically precedes and subsequently follows the historical era of the New Testament. Thus, my secondary specialized interest is early Christianity and Patristics.
  3. Ascertain text traditions and connect these texts together to observe a general worldview—both with an eye towards intertextually, historical reconstruction, and source influences. In this way, observations of literary, historical, and critical readings shall emerge.
  4. Be mindful of the intraspecialists within the New Testament and read their works. Creatively find ways to connect, refine, and clarify their work to others, including your own.
  5. Be committed to the ancient languages of Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac.
  6. Model integrated work for the study of New Testament with early Christian literature.

Please feel free to add more to or modify the previous list.


[1] Martin Hengel, “A Young Theological Discipline in Crisis,” in Earliest Christian History: History, Literature, and Theology, Essays from the Tyndal Fellowship in Honor of Martin Hengel, WUNT, ed. Michael F. Bird and Jason Mason, trans. Wayne Coppins (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 459.

[2] For example, Hengel notes, “The great scholars who advanced the investigation of the New Testament in the nineteenth century were precisely not ‘New Testament scholars’ according to today’s understanding, but distinguished Old Testament scholars, systematic theologians and above all church historians. I need only mention names such as de Wette, Ewald, Wellhausen and Gunkel for the Old Testament or Ferdinand Christian Baur, Hilgenfeld, Overbeck, Harnack and Zahn for church history. Already Schleiermacher especially liked to give exegetical lectures; Ritschl, Lipsius, cremer and Lütgert were systematic theologians and as such simultaneously theologians with a comprehensive philological, historical, and philosophical education. Their scope of work — so E. v. Dobschütz on H.J. Holtzmann — ‘encompassed the whole of theology’. This competence, which — at least from our perspective, which has become too narrow — covers multiple subjects also distinguishes scholars in the twentieth century who were simultaneously church historians and exegetes, such as W. Bousset, A. Jülicher, H. Lietzmann, E. Klostermann, H. von Campenhausen and K. Aland.” Hengel, “A Young Discipline,” 459–60.

[3] Hengel, “A Young Discipline,” 460.

[4] Hengel, “A Young Discipline,” 460.

[5] Hengel, “A Young Discipline,” 461.

[6] See: Timothy Michael Law and Christoph Markschies, “Coffee Table Talk with Christoph Markschies,” Marginalia Review of Books, 29 April 2014, accessed 14 December 2015

[7] Hengel, “A Young Discipline,” 461.

[8] Hengel, “A Young Discipline,” 461 (emphasis in original).

[9] Hengel, “A Young Discipline,” 467.


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